Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass hardback cover

The Golden Compass (1995)
His Dark Materials Book One
(UK title Northern Lights)

Knopf hardback edition - 399 pages
Cover artwork by Eric Rohmann (left)

Del Rey paperback edition - 351 pages (right)

The Golden Compass paperback cover

Covers for 2001 Del Rey USA His Dark Materials paperbacks
Amy's Summary:  Philip Pullman -The Golden Compass

The young girl Lyra lives and plays among the scholars at Jordan College in an alternate world version of Oxford England.  Her constant companion is her shape shifting daemon, Pantalaimon, a talking animal familiar.  One day, from hiding, she sees Lord Asriel's presentation about his Arctic mission.  Lyra learns of a city in the northern lights, and of Dust, not ordinary dust, but a magical particle with unique properties.

Children are mysteriously disappearing, taken by the Gobblers.  Lyra's friend Roger becomes one of the missing.  The glamorous Mrs. Coulter, who has a golden monkey daemon, volunteers to look after Lyra.

The Master of Jordan College gives Lyra an alethiometer, an instrument that can tell the truth.  But how to place the instrument's hands around the dial and read the thirty six symbols Lyra has to learn for herself.

Lyra discovers more about Mrs. Coulter's Oblation Board, which is experimenting with daemons.  Then Lyra becomes entangled in dangerous adventures that lead to the far North - to Bolvangar and to Svalbard.  Along the way Lyra befriends gyptians looking for their missing children, witches that fly on cloud pine branches, a balloonist from Texas, and an armored polar bear.

summary written by

Northern Lights (1995)
His Dark Materials Book One (USA title The Golden Compass)

From the back cover of UK paperback Northern Lights:
       When Lyra's friend Roger disappears, she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him.  The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendor of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies - and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.
       Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting her - something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights...

Point paperback edition - 399 pages (right)
Northern Lights UK book cover

Description from the back cover of the Listening Library audio version:
       When Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon decide to spy on a presentation her uncle, the commanding Lord Asriel, is making to the elders of Jordan College they have no idea that they will become witnesses to an attempted murder---and even less that they are taking the first steps in a journey that will lead them into danger and adventure unlike anything Lyra's unfettered imagination has conjured up.
       Though she has been raised at the college in an atmosphere of benign neglect that has allowed her to become a half-wild child of the streets, Lyra soon finds herself apprenticed to the elegant Mrs. Coulter---and in possession of a strange device called the alethiometer, a "golden compass" that reads not true north, but truth itself.
       But truth is a precious commodity, and before long Lyra and Pan are running for their lives, the object of an obsessive hunt by mysterious forces who have been stealing children for dark purposes that no one understands. Lyra will need all her street-learned wiles if she and Pan are to survive.

Lyra Belacqua (or Silvertongue) - feisty 11 year old blond-haired girl
Pantalaimon (Pan) - Lyra's shape shifting daemon
Lord Asriel - an arrogant relative of Lyra's, studies Dust (snow leopard daemon)
The Master of Jordan College, an old man (raven daemon)
Roger Parslow - Lyra's friend, kitchen boy from Jordan college (daemon Salcilia)
Mrs. Coulter (Marisa) - an elegant dark haired Lady (golden monkey daemon)
Ma Costa - a gyptian matron, stout gray haired woman
John Faa - Lord of the western gyptians
Farder Coram - a wise old gyptian man, years ago saved Serafina Pekkala's life
Iorek Byrnison - a pasnserbjørne, an armored polar bear, Lyra's friend
Serafina Pekkala - a Lapland witch, queen of a witch clan (daemon Kaisa, a snow goose)
Lee Scoresby - hired Texan aeronaut or balloonist (daemon Hester, a hare)
Tony Makarios - child taken by the Gobblers, later a severed child (daemon Ratter)
Lizzie Brooks - false name used by Lyra at Bolvanger
Iofur Raknison - the usurper King of Svalbard, an unbearlike bear

Places, things, and creatures:

Oxford and Jordan College
The alethiometer - the "golden compass", symbol reader, tells you the truth
Dust - elementary particle, attracted especially to adults, Rusakov particles
General Oblation Board - organization set up by Mrs. Coulter, the Gobblers
Magisterium - Group of Church councils meeting in Geneva
clockwork spy-fly - buzzing thing captured in a soldered tin
Trollesund - main port of Lapland
Bolvangar - the Experimental Station in the North, "the fields of evil"
Cliff-ghasts - foul smelling, leather winged creatures
Svalbard - island in the North ruled by the bears, where Lord Asriel is imprisoned

In the UK, The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal, a prestigious award for children's literature, and The Guardian Fiction Prize.
In the USA, it was an ALA Notable Children's Book, an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, a Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Booklist Editors' Choice-Top Ten List.

How we each rated this book
Dan 9 Amy 10 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 10 Barb 10
Aaron 9 Cynthia 8
Lars 10 Jackie 10

Aaron's Commentary   Philip Pullman - The Golden Compass

At its foundation, this book is a fun adventure story.  The adventure follows Lyra, a spunky young woman who travels to the ends of the earth hoping to free a group of captive children, including her best friend.  Pullman covers a lot of territory effectively and introduces a host of interesting side characters, especially the strong-willed gyptians and the somber polar bear Iorek Byrnison.  The adventure story works largely because Lyra is a terrific protagonist for a young adult novel.  She suffers all the confusion and uncertainty of a typical adolescent, yet repeatedly manages to escape danger and help her friends through cleverness and sheer determination (both of which she has in greater supply than Harry Potter, I must say).  I feared things would turn maudlin when Lyra’s parents were discovered to be important and powerful people, but Pullman avoids this by making her parents remarkably unlikable.  There is plenty in this book to entertain readers young and old.

But as fun as the story is, the novel transcends its adventure underpinnings, for at least two reasons.  First, it is infused with great fantastic imagery.  When I found myself fully absorbed in a wonderfully surreal scene depicting a squadron of armored polar bears launching flame at a zeppelin, while the zeppelin fires back with machine guns and flying witches pepper the bears with arrows, I realized I was reading something truly unique and memorable.

Second, the device of the daemons, animal-shaped companions to all human beings in Pullman’s universe, is brilliant.  The daemon concept is marvelously conceived and carried out.  Pullman brings his readers to believe in daemons as an integral part of his characters’ lives, to the point that we are actually shocked when we learn that the villains have been separating children from their daemons.  (What?  A child left with no daemon?  How horrible!  Wait a minute…)  The daemons allow Pullman to take internal thoughts and struggles and show them in external, literal terms.  Where other books might tell you that an adult compels a youth to obey through strength of will, Pullman actually shows the adult’s daemon overpowering the child’s.  Instead of telling us that Lyra had to force herself to overcome her fears in order to talk to the intimidating Iorek Byrnison, Pullman shows us her daemon literally pulling her forward.  The daemons are also central to Pullman’s metaphorical points, allowing him to grapple with issues regarding the soul and religion in a way that can fascinate sophisticated readers without distracting his younger readers.

One mistake Pullman made was not showing us more of Lyra’s friend Roger in the early passages in Oxford.  If we had gotten to know him better, the later sections of the book when he is in grave danger would have had more impact.  But this is only a minor quibble with an outstanding effort by Philip Pullman.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

Our book group has also read the following books by Philip Pullman:
-- The Subtle Knife  in October 1999
-- The Amber Spyglass  in September 2002

The Subtle Knife (1997)
His Dark Materials Book Two

The Amber Spyglass (2000)
His Dark Materials Book Three

Subtle Knife

Paperback cover artwork by Eric Peterson (left)

Hardback cover artwork by
Eric Rohmann (right)

Amber Spyglass

The His Dark Materials trilogy is intended to reflect elements of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).
Movie: The Golden Compass (2007)
The Golden Compass was released in December 2007 by New Line Cinema.  It stars Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua; Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter; Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel; Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby; Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala; and Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison.  The movie was directed by Chris Weitz.
Philip Pullman (1946-    ) is a UK writer

1995 Carnegie Medal for His Dark Materials Book 1: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)
1996 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize or Guardian Award for Northern Lights
2001 Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass
2005 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

He's is best known for the "His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass (1995, original UK title Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000).

Other short books set in the His Dark Materials universe are : Lyra's Oxford (2003) which features an episode with Lyra set after the end of the trilogy; and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008) which is a prequel episode featuring Lee Scoresby.

Most of Pullman's books can be categorized as YA (young adult) fiction, but his first two novels The Haunted Storm (1972) and Galatea (1978) were for adults, and his third Count Karlstein (1982) was for children.

The Sally Lockhart YA sequence The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), The Shadow in the North (1988), The Tiger in the Well (1990), and The Tin Princess (1994) are thrillers set in 19th century London.

Pullman has also written the following YA books: How to be Cool (1987) for older teen readers; Spring-Heeled Jack (1989) about a Robin Hood-like character; The Broken Bridge (1990) a modern tale of a mixed-race girl coming of age; The White Mercedes (1992) a contemporary mystery of lost innocence, which was re-issued as The Butterfly Tatoo (1998); Clockwork (1998) a dark fantasy set in Germany; The Firework-Maker's Daughter(1999) an Asian fable; I was a Rat...or the Scarlet Slippers (1999) which is an animal fantasy; and The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004).

Our book club's page for The Subtle Knife
Our book club's page for The Amber Spyglass
His Dark Materials fantasy books: 2001 editions
Randomhouse: His Dark Materials
Seized by the Tale : Review of The Golden Compass
Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (Golden Compass) - an infinity plus review book news: Philip Pullman article Nov. 2000
Torre degli Angeli
Curled up with a Good Book | The Golden Compass -- book review
IMDB : Movie - The Golden Compass (2007)
Philip Pullman - Wikipedia

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This page was last updated October 12, 2008